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Experiences in Ukraine, trip 2, from 26 april to 5 June.
Of this trip I only prepared the trip to Ukraine and the first accomodation, the rest was done on the spot, changing what I wanted to do as per my mood, interest, suggestions by locals etc. I used a Galaxy Tab2 tablet for internet browsing, and reserving rooms in hotels or guesthouses. For this it's very useful that WiFi is so widely available in Ukraine, far more so than in the Netherlands. For a next trip I want to take a backup phone card with which I can access internet via 3G. The phone system in Ukraine is compatible with the system in western Europe (but not the USA), so I just stuck a Kyivstar phone card in my tablet to make local calls.
I went from NL to Germany by train. Disappointingly, in this train it wasn't announced on which side of the train you should get out. So much for the German accuracy which I thought would be applied the same in all trains as I experienced on my trip to Aachen...
Then I went to the airport in Dortmund, and flying with Wizzair to Kiev-Zhulyany.
I like small airports such as Borispil, Zhulyany, Dortmund better than the supposedly very good airport Schiphol. Schiphol to me looks like a mess, it's not clear where to go, nor where to get your bags after the flight, because it's too big. You need to read lots of signs to know where to go. It's also way more expensive for the airlines. Where are the good points? WiFi is only free for 2 x 30 minutes too, via KPN. Why? Schiphol can't afford free unlimited duration WiFI from all the profit they make? On my return to NL from Kiev-Borispil I went via Poland and in the Chopin airport where I transferred, WiFi was also not free except with a boarding pass, but then only 30 minutes. Quite tight-fisted compared to Ukraine which leads NL and Poland in a long way in WiFi in airports but in far more places too. I've never seen tiny stands selling softdrinks and more with WiFi in NL, and in Zhulyany and Borispil, WiFi is avaialble freely without any silly scanning of boarding passes nor time limits.
I stayed a few days in Kiev, renting an apartment this time instead of an hotel. I made the mistake of assuming fast internet also included WiFi as just about all hotels and apartments I checked out have that in Ukraine, but it was ethernet. Well, I don't have a laptop. I asked if WiFi was possible and the guy who was there to give me the keys said he would install WiFi the next day. When this didn't happen, they promised to install it each time I called. That's the way to get me to never do business with you again... If you're not going to do it, then don't promise to do it! It already started with not replying to email, supposedly because they get so many emails. After my email the also changed the advertised price of the apartment and supposedly she made this clear in the phone conversation. If so, then by untelligibly mumbling something perhaps ;-) No, I think this was on purpose but anyway, it all shows the same thing: If people don't properly respond this is what they are like and you will get more issues later, so just avoid them... (this was http://www.kievrentapartment.com.ua/, 29 June 2013: I noticed they lowered the price again on apartment 143 to 330 uah which was the price I saw, but then when I wanted to rent it, when I was there in Kiev, it was supposedly 410 uah and they changed the price on the site... From this changing back it's clear that they are playing with the price to attract people. You can't trust them, their behaviour was proof enough, and on 29 June 2013 I noticed they changed back the price which confirms it again. Beware!).
In Kremenchuk I stayed in the Jolki-Palki hotel, which has some economy rooms that are great value so you can stay for a longer time here without spending a lot, and experience life in a not so big city in Ukraine, walking around, going to shops, going to the parks etc.
Kremenchug has 3 parks, 2 of which quite nice, one is the peace park, the other is a park partially along the river Dnjepro. Both these parks have WiFi!
In Kremenchuk there's a relatively new supermarket called Amstor (Амстор), which seems modelled somewhat on German/Dutch/Belgian supermarkets, with freshly baked bread too. The other supermarkets I've seen in Kiev, Kremenchug, Sevastopol, Uman such as Silpo (Силпо), Villa (Вилла), are fairly small and have a limited selection.
I didn't see any bakery shops in Ukraine. I don't mean shops that sell various bread with sweet filling or toppings, but shops where they bake the bread too. I was told supermarkets do get fresh bread (I mean such that it's still warm when you buy it, same as you can get from some supermarkets in NL and in bakeries) in the morning, but I was never early enough to see that. And I was told that in Kremenchug there are bakery shops, but as part of larger bakeries that supply other shops, and these bakeries are apparantly outside the main city, or somewhere at the edge. I haven't seen them anywhere during my walks in Kremenchug, perhaps next time I will try to find them.
Much more to come...
Kremenchuk is also a good starting point to make various daytrips with minibusses to esp. Kharkov and Dnjepropetrovsk. For Zaporozje you probably need to get a hotel room there and make it 2 days as there are no fast minibusses, and trains and regular busses are slow... That goes for Cherkassy too as there's no fast connection (minibus) from Kremenchug to Cherkassy. One such trip I made took 4 hours... another time on the way to Uman, for which I went to the busstation of Cherkassy first, it took almost 3 hours. As the earliest bus from Kremenchug to Cherkassy leaves at 8:30, and as for the trip back the last bus leaves Cherkassy quite early, ca. 17.30 or even earlier, this means you don't have much time in Cherkassy. The bus station is also quite far from the city centre, ca. 5 km. You can take a bus of course, instead of walking (which was my preferred mode of transport simply because I wanted to see everything and not just go the sights in any of the cities I went to). So all in all a daytrip from Kremenchug to Cherkassy doesn't give much time in Cherkassy and taking a hotel room seems a better option.
I got a 'platskart', open space where each bench is also a sleeping place. I heard a lot of negative stories about the trains in Ukraine, but this train (no. 138) I liked. I had a lower bench/bed underneath which stuff can be stored, for valuable stuff in case you are worried. I found the experience very enjoyable, and I saw nothing negative. It took a long time to get to Simferopol because the route isn't direct and it stops for a long time at some stations. But you can buy stuff from sellers there if you want. Examples: fish, caviar, strawberries. The duration of stops at each station is shown on the timetable for train 138 (timetable for train 138 Kremenchuk to Simferopol so you know how much time you have to buy some (food)stuff from sellers on the station...).
More to come...
I got to Simferopol first just as a transit point to Sevastopol. From Sevastopol I went on a daytrip back to Simferopol to see a bit of the city. I went to the outdoor archeological museum but was just too late, which wasn't a big problem as it means I have something to come back for another time :)
The Dutch travel guide mentions that Simferopol is considered a place to get out of :) Well, I admit that there is not that much of real interest in Simferopol, but what I really liked was the promenades on both sides of the canal which runs through the city from about where the archeological site is, to the train station (where the busses back to Sevastopol also depart). It shows signs of neglect as almost everything in Ukraine, but this doesn't detract from it being interesting nor from the beauty
More to come.
Sevastopol: The first day I walked from the bus station to Sofia-guest house, where I stayed, and it was hard work, I mean going up and down so many hills! ;-) And it was quite hard to pull my luggage as the wheels were too small for the bad sidewalks. The main roads in Sevastopol are excellent, but the rest of the roads very poor and unpaved in many places. Sidewalks are also worse than anywhere else I saw in Ukraine. This was annoying with my luggage (trolley bag), but my final view of Sevastopol wasn't much influenced by this.
I rented a bicycle from the guest house and rode around Sevastopol for an afternoon going to a park, the seaside, watching new appartment blocks that are being built etc. I'm not too fond of the new flats being built, they are too high! With the older flats that you can see in Sevastopol and other Ukrainian cities, trees are often as high or higher which means the feeling I get is always of 'nice and green'. There were signs close to those flats being built saying 'only 300 m from the sea' and 'only 200 m from the sea, yes, and then, how to get to the sea? I got stuck for example at a gate, which turned out to be the gate to the Russian admiral's house. It took probably a km to get to a part with access to the sea.
I didn't particularly like all the hills at first. Going up and down steps is quite exhausting if you're not used to it, but you will get used to that fairly quickly. To me something else is more annoying, perhaps that will go away after living in such a place for a longer time, but I can't say that yet, and that is that I don't like walking on roads/paths that are not horizontal. It's not about getting tired, just the feeling of walking on sloping ground that I don't like.
Sevastopol has some interesting buildings, monuments (e.g. on/near Primorsky boulevard), and you can see ships from the Russian black sea fleet, including submarines, if that interests you. there is also a dolphinarium, you can take boat tours around the harbour, and walk around the primorsky boulevard which has lots of benches, but which is quite busy.
What the Dutch travel guide "Oekraine", by Karel Onwijn, says, that that's a place where skinny ladies on high heels can be seen strolling around, I'm not sure is correct. In general Ukrainians don't look in better shape than the Dutch, in any of the cities I've visited, and in Ukraine too I saw some children already overweight, a phenomenon I've noticed more and more in NL the last few years.
There seems to be a lot of building going on in Sevastopol of apartment complexes, and sometimes I felt as if I was trapped like in some industrial complex (in NL for example near Utrecht I experienced this) where there's only an exit in one place and then you need to ride back a long way to get out.
Close to the sea I saw a big fence, and wondered what this was for. There was a guard, and another guy came out who spoke German and explained that it was where the house of the Russian admiral is, and that not far to my right is the house of the Ukrainian admiral. Interesting, and interesting too that when people can speak another language besides Russian/Ukrainian, I found it was German as often as English.
In Sevastopol there's an attraction for those interested in real history, Khersones (Херсонес), the remnants of an ancient Greek settlement.
Sevastopol is a good place from which to take daytrips to various sights and cities, such as Ai-petri, Alupka, cape Fiolent, Yalta and more.
cape Fiolent: In Sevastopol take bus 117??? and pay the driver 2 hrivna when you leave. Ask about the monastery (St. George's monastery), 'Fiolent' may give you a look of "I don't know". the view is great and its indeed a place of rest, compared to the noise (traffic, people) in Sevastopol, Alupka.
I descended the steps, said to be 800 from the monastery. I thought the start was a bit in doubt due to steps not being clearly steps, I decided to not count them. however, on the way up I couldn't restrain myself and counted anyway :) I got to 799. some steps in various places are dubious (very low for example), I could have a added 2 more, or deducted 2, so I'm staying at 799.
The beach is nice and as it was hot, going into the water quite nice to cool off a bit. It was quiet, except for one thing, music by some dimwits who think everyone will like their music, or who just don't care about others. And thus the quiet is already spoilt. But it was very nice despite this.
Alupka: You can take the bus from Sevastopol to Yalta, which will stop outside Alupka, but ask the driver to stop at Alupka before you get there. A smartphone or tablet with navigation to keep track of where you are is very helpful to make sure you get to the right spot!. Ticket cost is about 25 hrivna, trip takes about an hour and a half. I had already bought the return ticket in Sevastopol, but where should I get on the bus? Back on the main road? On the ticket, after some time looking at the differences on the 2 tickets, it was clear that what some locals said was correct: I should get on the bus, on the bus-stop in Alupka, because the tickets says the bus goes from мисхор (mountain) to Sevastopol, not Yalta to Sevastopol (which was the bus I got to get to Alupka). Otherwise, if your ticket is on the bus from Yalta to Sevastopol, you may need to go to the main road outside Alupka.
First I went to see the Vorontsev palace which didn't really appeal to me, the gardens were OK but didn't stand out either, to me the natural beauty at cape Fiolent was far more impressive...
Then from he Vorontsev palace it was a short walk to where there's a cable car up to the Ai-petri mountain. If you don't have a fear of heights, then this too is not very exciting, but the views are nice. I only made it more exciting by thinking about what would happen if a cable failed ;-)
On top of the mountain there are souvenir stands etc. which I din't pay much attention too, as for me the trip and experiences are what it's about, not getting some things to fill my house with.
I couldn't find hotels in Uman on booking.com, perhaps because of reviews or other issues. I went to stay at the Hotel Uman in the centre which has some budget rooms, but I didn't get that. But I was influence by that because the budget rooms (I think until they are renovated, there was work going on), are very cheap, with shared bathrooms and prices as low as 50 uah at one point, but at the moment probably 120 uah. I got a room with shower and toilet for 212 uah per day. But it was noisy because of the children, even late at night. In future I would ask to be somewhere quiet...
Sofiyivsky park is quite nice, but after this, and after walking around Uman to the outskirts too, it seems that's the only really interesting thing there.
Well, it is interesting to see such a small town anyway, and I like the small railway station, which was almost abandoned, and there are relatively few trains coming and leaving there. I have some pictures that will show where trains go to and the of the waiting rooms. To come soon.
More to come...
The official language is Ukrainian, though just about all Ukrainians speak Russian too. In Crimea the official language is Russian, the reasons for that are related to the history of ownership of Crimea and that many Russians live there.
Signs are usually in Ukrainian (except in Crimea) but if you only know Russian (as I do) then it's no problem to understand most of them.
Very few people speak other languages, and if they do it's English or German. Forget about French. Or Dutch :)
I wanted to learn Russian long before I wanted to go see Ukraine, and for Ukrainian there are fewer courses. For Russian introductory courses there is a great course in German that you can download from the web, called "Russisch bitte" from 1991. It has 30 x 30 minute episodes and 2 cassette tapes with audio (.ogg format) and 2 books (in pdf format). I had long ago taken an introductory course for Russian at university, but I used this TV series to learn more and try to follow conversations etc.
Because I'm still not fluent in Russian, it can be a bit tricky to know whether someone is speaking Ukrainian, or Russian but such that I don't understand it :) Sometimes it's clear, when I say '1' in Russian, it is 'Adin' (Один). The O is pronounced as A as in my transliteration ('adin'). In Ukrainian though, it is pronounced as written, 'odin'. So when someone hears I say 'adin' he knows I speak Russian. I have heard a minibus driver for example change his speaking from 'unintelligble to me' to 'Hard to understand for me, but it's Russian' :). This is all quite interesting but can make it harder to get a grip on the situation. Well, at least I sometimes felt out of my depth. But this is part of the fun of going to Ukraine.
This is one of the subjects dealt with very poorly in travel guides, so I'm giving some pointers on how to deal with getting around in Ukraine and how much it costs.
Marhsrutki/minibusses are the fastest way to get somewhere, e.g. Kiev to Sumy in about 4 hours. Prices are about 100 uah for Kiev-Sumy (4 hours), 65 uah for Kiev-Uman (less than 3 hours), ca. 90uah for Kiev-Kremenchug (more than 3 hours), ca. 85 uah for Kremenchug-Kharkov (a bit more than 3 hours), ca. 70 (if I recall correctly) for Kremenchug-Dnjepropetrovsk (about 2.5 hours) etc. Vice versa costs the same.
They usually start at around 4.00 or 5.00 in the morning and the last one back is usually around 19.00 or 20.00. Except for minubusses to/from Kiev, which go every hour even in the night. Minibusses go once per hour, so ask for the next one if the time slot you want is full. By going at 4.00 or 5.00 in the morning you will get early in the morning in the destination city and you will have plenty of time to look around. You pay the money to the driver when getting in, or sometimes later when everyone is seated.
Standard busses can be very slow but sometimes are really fast. I got a bus from Simferopol to Sevastopol, for about 25 uah, which was quite fast, about 1.5 hour.
Train: Platskart (benches used for sleeping, open) from Kremenchug to Simferopol (15 hours, night train) costs about 110 uah, or ca. 200 uah for a compartment with 4 benches/beds. In Simferopol if you want to buy a train ticket one or more days in advance, you need to go to a separate section, the service centre... It's said that it's best to buy tickets days in advance especially in summer. I didn't notice a shortage of places during my trip.
Taxi drivers will often try to persuade you, to the point of almost harassing you, to go with them. Esp. in Kiev at the busstation and in Simferopol at the train station where a bus station is just 200 metres further. If you don't want this, don't argue, just walk away. If in Kiev you're at the bus station but there are no busses (avtolux for example) to your destination, or if you need to go to the busstation at the trainstation to get a minibus there, take a taxi to the trainstation, and don't accept an offer of them arranging it for you (for an extortionate price, keep the prices in mind of minibus rides at the start of this section, then you know how much they're trying to make off of you). If they keep insisting, just walk away from the bus station and take a taxi some way away from it.
Unless you're too late or too early for busses (which don't go as late as in NL, where the latest bus usually goes somewhere around 01.00), or need to be somewhere for an appointment, there's no point really in getting a taxi to a destination far away, just buy a bus ticket which is ten times cheaper than the cheapest ride by taxi, it's fast enough in most cases too. For trips from e.g. Simferopol to Yalta, Sevastopol etc., I would say there's no point in taking a taxi, especially if you're not averse to walking the final bit. I presume this is true for almost any destination. Taxis just aren't needed in most cases, despite what taxi drivers tell you. Once in your destination city you can take a taxi to your accomodation for little money (ca. 25-50 uah) anyway if you do mind a lot of walking (with baggage)...
Within a city you can also take minibusses which are so cheap it's pointless to consider walking even if you're on a tight budget. I took such minibusses within a city only a few times in Sevastopol, where some walks going up and down lots of hills wouldn't be much fun after a while and I just wanted to get to the busstation for example. Cost here is ca. 3.5 uah, or 5 at night (23.00 - 6.00), and you pay the driver when you leave the minibus.
For some trips (destinations) you may need to take a minibus, for others a standard bus. Minibusses usually only go to often wanted destinations, so for anything else you will need a standard bus which can be slow. Minibusses that go long distance (so not the ones that have routes within the cities) usually arrive to and leave from some fixed place, which is often close to the railway station. The bus station is sometimes located far away from the trainstation... To travel with a standard bus, you can buy tickets in advance at the busstation (although I couldn't do this in Uman, not sure why). The busses are sometimes without seat numbers, in other cases you get a ticket with seat number so you're guaranteed a seat. These busses with seat numbers do stop to take on passengers who haven't bought a ticket, so you can always try to flag down a bus when you want to go somewhere, but it may be standing room only then).
To find my way back to the trainstation or where the minibusses are, or the busstation, or sights that I saw, I used Osmand navigation on my tablet computer (see also my bicycle computer/navigation page). Press the screen in the current position and add a 'favourite'. It works really well and if you have a smart phone, this is an excellent program and makes it all a lot easier.
bus tickets often have a number printed on them that's the numerical part of the licence plate so you know for which bus to take if there are several, but the time of departure can also be placed on a card in the front window of the bus.
If you're unsure it will go well with limited language skills, ask your hotel receptionist if she can help reserving a place on a minibus or with writing something down so you will buy the right ticket.
Conveniences: the Dutch guide Oekraine by Karel Onwijn says to have patience with how it goes in Ukraine as the facilities are not up to western European standards, due to economic issues and the short time time since independence. I disagree, you should not have patience, you should accept this as the way it is here and take that as part of the fun of going here. If you want perfect accommodations go to another country or to a 5 star hotel, but what is the point of that? I came to try the food, see what life is like here in Ukraine, not to lie on a beach nor eat standard food in hotels nor get good service in hotels. Frankly I don't care about service as long as I have WiFi, as that's the one thing I need (to prepare the rest of my trip, such as book hotels etc. and I use it for my business too)
The travel guides all tell of people in hotels or shops being often surly, and I noticed it a little on a few occasions, but just put a smile on your face, ask something and generally everyone is helpful and friendly. I found people on busses too quite interested in why I got to Ukraine and what I was going to see etc., and giving hints or helping me catch the right bus or on where to get off. So my experiences in the cities where I was, have been positive.
The travel guides do a piss poor job of conveying what life in Ukraine is really like, what wages are and how much it costs here to live. So that's why I wrote this section.
Ukrainian brand soft drinks are about half the price of similar drinks in NL, a 2 litre bottle of say Bon buasson costs about 7.5 uah, 0.75 euro. Most other food products are similar in price to in NL. Some things are very expensive such as ice cream. not just individual ice cream cones, but a litre pack (to be scooped from at home) can cost up to 100 uah. That's expensive for me (4 times as expensive as in NL), how are people in Ukraine going to pay for that? average wages depend on the region, pensions are very low, about 1000 uah per month, a regular income about 1500 uah in Crimea, I was told by someone from Kerch, but a lady in Kremenchug said that wages there are ca. 2500 uah per month average and housing costs 1500 uah per month there. I suppose it's hard to estimate averages just like I don't know precisely what wages are in NL nor the average from knowing just several wages, so take these just as figures to give you an idea. Wages will be higher in Kiev where some people pretend to live in western Europe, by asking far too high prices for some products/services etc. (such as lots of taxi drivers)
People in Ukraine often live with their parents until they get married and have 2 incomes, or they share an apartment. Housing, usually an apartment, costs about 1500 uah per month except of course in Kiev, where often fantasy overrides reality.
Transportation prices are incredibly cheap for western European standard, caused by the low wages, and probably also in large part due to other factors that increase cost in western Europe, I mean overheads such as bureaucracy, but also road tax. And probably what also helps is that busses/trains are used for a long time. In NL it seems there are no old busses nor trains, in Ukraine I saw some very old trolleybusses (in Sumy and Kremenchuk for example), but why scrap such a bus if it still works fine? I look more to the essence of things, so I look past a scruffy exterior and consider it good to not waste money :) I did see some spiffy new busses in Kremenchuk by the way.
There's a lot of talk of corruption here, and it seems benign in the small cases, people wanting presents/food to come attach the gas supply to a house for example. These sort of issues are understandable from the view that people here have to work hard and then still have little. What is more problematic is corruption higher up. I heard for example of a story of a hospital being set up, but when journalists tried to find it, there was nothing and the explanation was then that all the money had been used for all the preparations/paperwork etc. Yeah right! But is this so different from western Europe? There is plenty wrong here!
When I see big houses in Ukraine I call them Mafia houses, because no-one can afford this unless they are taking away from others. Taking away not necessarily in a criminal way, but by being the boss who makes a lot of money while employees get little, as usual, but when it's as little as in Ukraine, it's really stealing from the employees. It makes me think of what happens in companies in the USA, where it is really noticeable far stronger than say in NL, that bosses always do well, whatever the state of the economy or the company, and they are the ones always get looked after well. If the company is not doing well, bosses never get a reduction in pay but the average worker needs to accept less. Bosses no matter how badly the company does, nor how badly he did his work, even get bonusses for doing their work. Badly, as usual. And with those thoughts I get to the examples of hotels and restaurants. If labour is so cheap, and as many hotels are not even up to western European standards, why do they often cost just as much?
For the money and style I prefer hotels such a "Jolki-palki" in Kremenchuk and "Pan" in Sumy. These are newly built, very enjoyable to stay in, with a nice atmosphere (it's a bit like staying in a really big house), and still offer rooms much better in value than most other hotels. So where does the money go to in most hotels? I presume the bosses who drive around in expensive cars and have Mafia-houses built for themselves.
In a richer country such things wouldn't be so offensive, but in Ukraine it makes me sick to see the display of wealth by some people who then do feel the need to hide their entire house behind 2 metre high walls. When I pointed to some houses and said how ridiculously large they are, a lady (from Kiev, so no wonder perhaps?!) said "well, it's not so large, you may have a fitness room, a billiard room". Uhm, yeah, wait a fucking minute there lady! Just about nobody in a rich country like NL has that and you think it's normal in a poor country like Ukraine? She's goddamn insane, that's al I can say about her... I asked another lady who works in showbusiness about expensive restaurants and she thinks it's OK to spend your money the way you want it (I don't agree in all circumstances) and it gives others something to strive for. The latter comment is ludicrous: you can't strive to get a high paying job and only a few will get such jobs. To me these things are as bad as people in India driving with their Rolls Royce through a slum...
In Kiev some displays of wealth are really offensive (once you realise how low average wages are). This display comes in various forms, for example in there being very expensive restaurants, shops and people driving around in very expensive cars. Regarding restaurants, here are several I know of in Kiev, in which a dinner for 2 or even lunch can easily cost what an average Ukrainian makes in a month: Belvedere, Marakkesh, Monaco. Avoid them and let the owners go bankrupt, they deserve it... Go to a cheaper restaurant and if you want to spend more money, donate to charity, buy from small shops on street corners, in the market etc. It will be better for the average Ukrainian, and more interesting for you.
If you want to experience life in Ukraine, you should also listen to Ukrainian and Russian popular and traditional music as people here do... I found a fair number of songs that I like, and you can find most of them on youtube. Here is my list, with transliteration. I will add more links to youtube in due course:
The Dutch travel programme "3 op reis" has an episode filmed in Kirgistan (Season 5 ep. 14), where the presenter made the comment that they played 'awful russian dance music' at the disco. My thoughts were "If you want to hear awful music, listen to Dutch popular music!" (or dance music) and to be honest, most popular and dance music (from all countries) is trash... I only like 1 song from all the Dutch popular music I ever heard, and I like far more Russian and Ukrainian pop music. Russian/Ukrainian music is just as good and interesting as those from France, Germany, UK, USA, but it's just in a different style.
I read the following books:
Conclusion: All of these books have something the others don't have. If maximum amount of information is your goal, go for the Bradt travel guide which also has the advantage of including Russian language information, not just Ukrainian.
This page created 25 May 2013
Last modified: Mon Oct 14 07:36:48 CEST 2013